Anger, then sexy and madly in love

Gwen Stefani.
Gwen Stefani.

After Gwen Stefani discovered her husband's alleged affair, she plunged into songwriting - and fell in love again

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA • In February last year, Gwen Stefani joined Maroon 5 onstage at the Grammys to perform the ballad My Heart Is Open.

After the awards, she got Mexican food with the band's singer, Adam Levine, a fellow coach on the NBC reality-singing competition, The Voice.

For a pop superstar of two decades, it was a relatively normal night. But when she woke up the next morning, "My life was literally blown up into my face," she said.

For 10 weeks, those closest to her had known the secret that ultimately ended her 13-year marriage to Gavin Rossdale, the singer of the band Bush.

She will not discuss the details, partly to protect her children, but said: "If I could, I would just tell you everything and you would just be in shock. It's a really good, juicy story."

The tabloids say Rossdale was having a several-years-long affair with a nanny caring for the couple's three sons.

This Is What The Truth Feels Like is out on Friday.

I'm gonna die. I am dead, actually. How do I save myself? What am I going to do? How do I not go down like this? I have to make music out of this. That's what God wants for me.

GWEN STEFANI, recalling her emotional state when her 13-year marriage to Gavin Rossdale, singer of the band Bush, ended last year

Stefani, 46, was reeling.

"I'm gonna die," she said, recalling her emotional state. "I am dead, actually. How do I save myself? What am I going to do? How do I not go down like this?"

Sitting at the long marble table in an office in her sprawling home here, dressed in a sheer white blouse and shiny red stilettos, she laid out the answer: She plunged herself into her first love, song- writing.

"I have to make music out of this. That's what God wants for me," she remembers thinking.

The result is This Is What The Truth Feels Like (Interscope), her first solo album in a decade, which will be released on Friday.

The album's 12 tracks are more direct and less whimsical than her previous two pop records. There are fiery songs about secrets and infidelity (the swaggering Red Flag and Naughty, delivered in her speak-sung pseudo-rap) and ballads that capture the rawness of a long relationship's premature end (Used To Love You).

And, thanks to her budding romance with her Voice co-star, country singer Blake Shelton - which began after news of her split with Rossdale broke last August - more than half of the tracks are about discovering the spark of a new love.

The songs are not as dancey as much current pop; they retain the bouncy, synth-driven sound of her earlier work. In a field dominated by young starlets, she has made a grown-up pop album, confessional and sleek, without the oddball "B-A-N-A-N-A-S" flourishes of her past hits.

As she began writing, she said she did not worry about potential sales, what it means to be a 46-year-old pop singer in a youth-dominated field or pleasing her record company.

She talked to a new contact at her label, Aaron Bay-Schuck, and felt a glimmer of hope. ("I was like, wow, this guy, I think he might actually get me.") And then she started sessions with the team that became her Truth squad, including songwriter Justin Tranter and later his frequent partner Julia Michaels, who together had written high- profile tracks for Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber.

Stefani's directions were clear: She wanted to capture her history - if it did not happen in real life, it was not going on the album. And the floodgates opened.

"Being in that room and being creative, it was the only place that felt good - I was like, I love the smell of this room," she recalled. (Michaels said there were a lot of laughter and tears during the sessions, which Stefani attended in her signature look: "The red lips and big nails and the jewellery.")

Songwriting had saved her before, Stefani said. She described herself as having been a "passive girl", an unremarkable teenager, until she uncovered her talent. "It's almost like one of those movies where they discover they have magic," she said. "When I was able to first write a song, that's when I found my whole self."

Her label, however, had reservations about the highly personal music she was churning out. On a telephone call that felt like "five people punching me in the stomach", she said she was told: "We support you, you should put out an artistic record and don't go for radio. It's over for you, basically."

Mr John Janick, chairman and chief executive of Interscope Geffen A&M, said he "absolutely" remembers the uncomfortable call - because he was the one who had to make it.

"I said, 'I'm not sure you have the song that's going to really connect with people,'" he recalled. "And two days later, she sent us Used To Love You.

The label immediately got in touch to say, "You have a hit," Stefani said, noting with some glee that it was the most personal song she'd attempted to write. "That's never happened in my entire career." (The song wound up peaking at No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 100. A second single, Make Me Like You, for which she created an intricately choreographed live video during a commercial break on this year's Grammys in a multimillion-dollar partnership with Target, is at No. 54 and climbing.)

After a few weeks in the studio, she returned to her other job on The Voice, burdened with knowing her marital issues had not yet become public. "I'm not a secret girl," she explained. "I tell everybody when my period is coming."

But she soon learnt that Shelton, whom she refers to as "one of my co-workers", was also in the throes of a personal crisis. He "had been going through literally the exact same thing in literally the exact same time frame", she said. Her friendship with him blossomed.

Her collaborators noticed a change instantly. "We had anger, we had sadness, we had flirtation, we had sexy and now we're madly in love," Tranter said.

Stefani described the shift with one of her frequently used terms - "crazy!" - and added, "Never in my wildest, craziest dreams would I ever have seen this coming".

Stefani, unguarded and reflective, spoke quickly in torrents of words, pausing only to sip tea from a cup that, like most of her decor, was black and white. She thought back to her childhood in Anaheim, California, where she presumed she would one day lead a happy family like the one her parents had built. "I was so sheltered and that's why I think I got myself into so much trouble, in a way," she said.

She lamented that because of her split from Rossdale, she now has her sons 50 per cent of the time.

"It's like, the most unjust, unbelievable system," she said, adding that the "blessing" in it was she had time to heal and write.

No Doubt, the band she co- founded in 1987, had already sold more than 20 million albums worldwide when it took its first break following its 2001 LP, Rock Steady.

Her first thought: "Dance record." The result was Love. Angel. Music. Baby., a 2004 album of wacky, hip-hop-inflected songs that blended her fascination with Japanese fashion and 1980s synth pop.

Pharrell Williams, now a longtime friend, collaborated on its signature hit, Hollaback Girl. He said in an e-mail: "Gwen is a true heroine, whose creativity represents all the young female rebels at heart."

She got pregnant with her first son, Kingston, before embarking on her first solo tour and returned to the studio to make a follow-up album, The Sweet Escape, when he was just eight weeks old.

The cycle almost immediately repeated itself: a worldwide tour and a pregnancy, with her second child, Zuma. Her growing empire now included fashion and fragrances.

And she was not done yet. No Doubt had been awaiting her return, so she hit the road with a toddler and a nursing baby and completely exhausted herself.

"I felt quite trapped on so many levels because when you have that much success, you feel like you owe everybody," she said. "Everybody depends on you."

Sessions for the band's first album in 11 years, Push And Shove, followed, and Stefani was not brimming with ideas.

The LP failed to take off commercially and, when the band returned to the studio - this time with collaborators including Sia, Greg Kurstin and Williams - Stefani got pregnant for a third time.

"That's when I started to find my faith again," she said. "It's like a miracle, at my age." Weeks after giving birth to Apollo, the offer to become a coach on The Voice arrived and Stefani found herself relishing her new role as mentor. "I needed so badly to do something different and I needed so badly to be in a different role, a giving role."

Freshly inspired, she felt the urge to make music and mulled a solo album. "I started to think, well, I'll just curate a record and I'll do it like every other pop girl does."

This was the first time she had dipped a toe into the new pop economy, where ace songwriters for hire shop tracks from artist to artist. "Every song that people would write for me felt like me 12 years ago, me 10 years ago. And lyrically they could never touch my heart, ever." She recorded a full album, but decided to shelve it once sessions for Truth took off.

Considering how much the pop landscape has changed in a decade, she is incredulous about her ability to continue recording. "I don't even understand how I could possibly have had this long a career or a career at all," she said. "And that anyone cares, and that I'm relevant or anything, it just blows my mind."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'Anger, then sexy and madly in love'. Print Edition | Subscribe